In my previous commentary, I dealt with “Scylla,” the economic and political crisis in Greece. Now, as promised, I present the “Charybdis”: the Turkish threat, and some ideas about how to handle it.
Athens was startled by the fairly sudden change of policy of Ankara from seeking cooperation to a possible conflict over hydrocarbons in Cyprus and perhaps in the Aegean.
The change of policy is directly linked to internal political developments in Turkey, particularly with the rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Presidency and of Ahmet Davutoglu to the premiership, as well as to the economic and other weaknesses Greece is experiencing.
Just two days after his inauguration, Turkey’s powerful President visited the occupied Northern part of Cyprus and presented in great detail his policy towards Cyprus, the Patriarchate, and Thrace.
It was there that he spoke for the first time publicly about their policy to establish two independent states on the island, and of sharing the hydrocarbons between them.
The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded properly, but the government and the other political forces were focused elsewhere. That is, up to the time Turkey announced it would send a research vessel to conduct surveys in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Cyprus, accompanied by two warships.
True to its timetable, Ankara sent the ship – the Barbaros, named after a sultan whose grave is in Constantinople’s central Taksim Square – and it remains undisturbed within the Cyprus EEZ since October 22.
Athens began to worry.
The government felt it was necessary, for political reasons, to undertake various actions, such as a summit with Cyprus and Egypt.
The Greek Prime Minister, on his way to Cairo, stopped in Nicosia to show solidarity with the Greek Cypriots.
That was preceded by President Nicos Anastasiades’ hospitalization prior to the recent Eurogroup meeting in Brussels. Ultimately, his health issues have proven more serious than was first revealed: he will undergo open heart surgery.
Athens is moving carefully. It does not want escalation of the crisis.
The Greeks are worried, however, that once the Barbaros finishes its work in Cyprus, it will proceed into the Aegean. They are worried that miscalculations could cause a volatile episode that will lead to an uncontrollable situation. The story of the Imia crisis is still fresh in everyone’s memory.
But there are some knowledgeable policy analysts in Athens who are more worried about Thrace, where the establishment of a Muslim party has taken place, and which in the last municipal elections garnered high vote totals, especially in Xanthi and Komotini – raising the possibility that they will win seats in Parliament in the next elections.
Meanwhile, messages arriving from Turkey through various emissaries are not encouraging. Turkey seeks to share the gas and oil in Cyprus, here and now. And definitely before the solution of the Cyprus problem.
Athens is carefully measuring Ankara’s words and movements. It is monitoring the continuous and increasing encroachments of Turkish vessels, which Greece challenges and turns away – carefully.
Things took a more difficult turn when on November 10 a Turkish Admiral announced that the Navy has been authorized to change the terms of engagement for its warships in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“The Prime Minister handed over the new terms of engagement to the Chief of the Armed Forces, who gave them the Chief of Naval Forces,” said the Admiral. The news made headlines in Turkish papers the next day.
Before returning to New York City, I stopped in Constantinople for a meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and other hierarchs.
I noticed that the Turkish government has not given much publicity to this issue. But this can change from one moment to another.
That is why Vice President Joe Biden will include a stop in Constantinople when he visits the region shortly. It is obvious to the naked eye that Turkey faces many serious problems, both internally and geopolitically. They have moved from the Davutoglu doctrine of “zero problems with neighbors” to having issues with everyone.
The rising prospect of the establishment of an independent Kurdish state is at the top of his list of problems. Meanwhile, the image of Erdogan, especially after the construction of the Presidential palace consisting of 1,000 rooms, has been damaged.
The Turkish leader, however, is clear, on vision, strategy, and determination. He means what he says. And he seems to be now in control of the Armed Forces, an unprecedented situation for Turkey.
And Erdogan himself is not under the control of anyone, not even the United States.
As I see it, Turkey will not allow the Republic of Cyprus to develop the hydrocarbons unilaterally. It will also try to clarify the situation in the Aegean regarding oil fields there. Now that Greece is weak.
Meanwhile, the Greek government is the target of unfair criticism for its decision to conduct scheduled meetings with the Turkish leadership in Athens early next month.
Given the above cases, the dialogue is necessary. Perhaps the only way to avoid the worst is through dialogue.
At the very least, it is the only way to gain time. Time that the country so desperately needs.